As the world begins to reopen and resume some sense of normalcy, one question on the minds of travelers is when will Japan begin allowing international tourists to enter? As a vacation planning site that offers strategy for visiting Kyoto, Tokyo, and other destinations, we thought it’d be worth trying to answer this. (Updated September 1, 2020.)
In terms of background, the Japanese central government declared a state of emergency after much hesitation. At the time, official spread was low (aside from the Diamond Princess), with some speculating that Japan had purposefully avoided testing in an effort to salvage the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
Once the summer games were officially postponed until July 23, 2021, Japan requested people to stay home–but didn’t enact a stringent lockdown–with schools and some businesses closing. This continued for nearly two months, with the state of emergency now being fully lifted. Despite the aforementioned criticism, Japan never saw a significant spike in cases–at least not to the extent of Europe and the United States…
We originally planned on traveling to Japan a couple of weeks before the start of sakura season, staying for a little over one month to research and update our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto. These plans were abandoned at the last minute (almost literally), and we made the call to stay in the United States. It was difficult because we likely would’ve felt safer in Japan, but the uncertainty of being in a foreign country (and potentially being stranded there) outweighed that.
For the last 6 months, we’ve been closely watching the improvements in Japan, hoping for some clarity as to when the country will fully reopen and Japan will begin allowing international tourists to enter once again. We are eager to return, but also apprehensive–but more on that towards the bottom of the post.
Japan has imposed entry bans on 150+ countries and regions including the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, all of Europe (including the United Kingdom), and most of Asia. The bans are currently in effect indefinitely. Japan has also temporarily suspended visa exemptions, making it necessary to apply for a visa prior to traveling.
Additionally, everyone entering Japan must undergo a mandatory quarantine at a designated location and may not use public transportation for 14 days upon arrival. Foreigners, including those with residency in Japan, who have been to countries on the entry ban list within 14 days of their arrival in Japan will be turned away under current border control measures.
In a nutshell, it’s presently impossible to visit Japan unless you are a Japanese citizen or meet one of the few exceptions. That’s probably not going to apply to anyone reading this English language blog post, so let’s turn to what the future holds…
With the state of emergency lifted, the Japanese government is encouraging people to practice physical distancing, good hygiene practices, and mask wearing in public (among other things). They’re also being asked to avoid visiting crowded and poorly ventilated places. In some areas (including Tokyo), certain establishments are requested to remain closed or shorten their business hours.
However, most businesses may now fully reopen, with schools also resuming classes in many of Japan’s 47 prefectures. Nevertheless, people are also being asked to avoid non-essential travel to certain regions of Japan, including the Tokyo, after a mild spike (or second wave) of cases over the summer travel season.
After easing some restrictions, Tokyo Prefecture saw an increase in the number of new infection cases in recent weeks, but that has started to subside and trend downwards. Japan did not reinstate a state of emergency.
Barring a pronounced spike, Japanese leaders have expressed a desire to jump-start the world’s third-largest economy and have embraced measures to signal the start of the return to normal life. However, this is also tempered by fears of a second wave or spike due to increased traveling.
A gradual reopening of Japan’s borders is now underway. Beginning September 2020, foreign residents are finally allowed to reenter Japan, albeit with onerous quarantine and testing requirements. This follows mounting criticism from the expatriate community that the ban was discriminatory.
Reopening Japan’s borders to foreign residents stranded abroad is step one, with the plan to ease restrictions on business travelers and students next, followed by tourists. This process has been fairly slow thus far.
The next step being considered by the Japanese government is easing its entry ban on visitors from Hong Kong, Thailand, Vietnam, Australia, and New Zealand, and regions where infections have subsided. Japan is also considering allowing entry of foreigners from the countries who have certification for testing negative.
It’s worth noting that when the Japanese government “considers” something, it takes a while for the change to come to fruition. To an extent, this is totally understandable–we’re in the midst of a global pandemic and much uncertainty exists. Health and safety are paramount concerns and priorities.
However, in following the unfortunate saga of the foreign residents it seems that Japan’s decisions–or lack thereof–are being driven by fear of cultural outsiders and indecisiveness more so than anything else. It would be one thing if government decisions consistently prioritized health and safety above all else, but that has not been the case.
As a case in point, the Japanese government began reviving its battered tourism industry by paying for people to go on vacation within the country…right as cases began to peak this summer. Approximately 1.35 trillion yen was earmarked for the controversial “Go To Travel” campaign, part of a gigantic emergency relief and stimulus package that will exceed 200 trillion yen.
Nevertheless, Japanese officials have indicated a desire to balance being diligent against spread with considering how to resume international travel. The number of travelers to Japan has plunged in recent months, with visitors down 99.9% year over year in the last several months.
Prior to this year, tourism to Japan has been surging, with several consecutive record setting years. Last year, Japan’s tourism numbers were up to a record 31.9 million visitors. In fact, every single year since 2013 has been a new record for inbound tourism to Japan.
Japan had just 8 million tourists when Prime Minister Shinzō Abe was elected to his second term (As you’ve likely seen, Prime Minister Abe resigned just lack week–a decision that will create more uncertainty and hesitation in decision-making). In 7 years, that number more than quadrupled. Some places we like to visit that were once serene or frequently primarily by locals are now often overrun by tourists. (We see the irony in our complaint here.)
Boosting tourism has been core to Prime Minister Abe’s economic revitalization plan, and until now, increased inbound visitation has been one of the biggest success stories of “Abenomics.” The now-delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympics have been viewed as instrumental to these plans, with Japan’s inbound tourism target for 2020 being 40 million visitors at the start of the year.
Thus far, roughly 4 million international travelers have visited Japan in 2020. It’s impossible to project a total for the year–visitation was strong in January before dropping in February and cratering the last six months. In fact, the last few months have seen several new all-time record lows with only 1,700 to 2,900 international visitors per month. A far cry from the 2-3 million per month last year!
If we use the most recent data as the “pace” for the rest of the year, this would be Japan’s worst year for tourism since the late 1990s. Even with travel restrictions lifted on an optimistic timeline, Japan will be lucky to crack 6 million tourists this year–obviously falling far short of the original 40 million forecast.
Japan has already fallen into a recession, with the outlook for the next three quarters not looking too promising–and this is on top of falling export numbers, an increased consumption tax suppressing consumer spending, and growing national debt. Suffice to say, Japan’s economic health is likewise a serious issue, and inbound tourism was previously a bright spot.
However, tourism numbers are unlikely to bounce back in 2020. Despite the aforementioned loosening of entry bans for visitors from certain countries and the tourism-dependent economy, it seems unlikely that Japan will move swiftly to resume entry for leisure travelers. Some such visitors from countries in Asia might be allowed to revisit this fall–maybe.
With that said, when Japan will reopen to leisure travelers from the United States, Canada, and Europe remains to be seen. If we had to guess–and that’s exactly what this is, a guess–we’d predict that Japan will not reopen to most visitors from the above countries in 2020.
The biggest issue on Japan’s end is efficient and large-scale airport testing. Japan is constructing facilities at Haneda, Narita, and Kansai Airports in Tokyo and Osaka. The goal is to open these facilities by Fall 2020 and conduct 10,000 PCR tests each day. We watch NHK Newsline and read multiple Japanese newspapers every single day for developments on this. (If you’d like to be updated as soon as we find out more, subscribe to our free email newsletter.)
Of course, it’s not just about Japan scaling up testing. Other countries will need to demonstrate containment or downward trends in new cases for a period of time. This could be sooner for Europe, but Americans are likely to be one of the lowest-priority countries due to our significant woes in controlling spread and highly-visible controversy over mask-wearing.
We suspect the best case scenario for visitors to Japan from the United States is Spring 2021.
As such, we currently only have tentative plans to visit Japan. Our original hope was to get back for fall colors season, but that now seems like a lost cause. Nevertheless, we still anxiously watch and read the news every single day, hoping for a break-through so we can book a last-minute trip.
More realistically, we’re now aiming to return to Japan for sakura season in Spring 2021. Delaying is not the worst thing, as we’re still not entirely comfortable taking a long-haul flight, being on public transportation, or dining in cramped ramen shops (one of our favorite things to do).
With all of that said, we definitely feel more comfortable out in public in Japan than the United States. Even with the denser population, popularity of mass transit, and relatively lax restrictions, Japan has seen far fewer cases and hospitalizations than other nations. There have been a range of theories as to how Japan “beat” the average, with the various theories having varying degrees of merit.
A big factor in Japan’s success is undoubtedly the widespread use of face masks, which were culturally commonplace for sick individuals in Japan to wear even prior to this. Japan’s more courteous society–devoid of rampant and misplaced notions about individuality, personal freedoms, liberties, or whatever–is definitely more attractive during a pandemic. (We’ll spare you that soapbox.)
That doesn’t mean we’ll necessarily visit Japan if we’re somehow presented with the opportunity in Fall 2020–there are still a lot of concerns and downsides–but it is one big check on the upsides column. Either way, we’ll keep watching the news and keep you posted if/when there are further developments about Japan reopening and allowing entry to travelers from the United States, Canada, Europe, and beyond!
If you’re planning a trip to the Japan, check out our other posts about Japan for ideas on other things to do! We also recommend consulting our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto and Ultimate Guide to Tokyo to plan.
Would you consider visiting Japan later this year, or is international travel out of the question for you until there’s a vaccine? Are you assuaged at all by the relatively low number of cases in Japan? Is Japan’s mask culture reassuring to you? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? If you’re planning your trip to Japan, what do you think about these itineraries? Any questions? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!